VERNAL — Three men were ordered Thursday to stand trial for gang raping a 9-year-old girl following a tense preliminary hearing. But with the child's mother nowhere to be found to take the witness stand, the same charges were dropped against a fourth man.
Larson Rondeau, 36; Jerry Flatlip, 29; and Randall Flatlip, 26, are charged with rape of a child and sodomy on a child, first-degree felonies. Eighth District Judge Edwin Peterson ruled Thursday there was sufficient evidence to take the case to a jury.
The girl's mother is a material witness in the case against 20-year-old Josiah Rondeau, prosecutors said. In her absence, he was released from jail Thursday while prosecutors retained the option to refile the criminal charges in the future.
Police say the girl's mother was in another room using drugs when the assault occurred. Following Thursday's hearing, Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas said the shocking case highlights the problems families face when dealing with substance abuse.
"I think people might be bothered that parents were not more actively involved in trying to offer protection in this case," Thomas said. "It's a sad circumstance that a parent may be choosing to put their own desires for substance above potential protection and care for their children."
A warrant has been requested to arrest the mother, who hasn't been seen for about a month, Thomas said. Prosecutors are still considering filing charges against her stemming from the allegations against her that day, Thomas said.
In a video interview played in court, the 9-year-old girl kept her hands in her pockets and the hood of her sweatshirt up as she quietly described how four men woke her on Easter Sunday as she was sleeping on a couch in one of their homes. From there, they took her to a back bedroom and held down her arms and legs while they sexually assaulted her, she said.
"They took turns," the girl told an interviewer with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, saying, "I was raped," and describing the assault in the words of a child.
The girl also described how the men threatened her.
"They said if I tell, they're going to kill my family, my mom and me," the girl told the social worker.
The girl was also seen in a video interview on a different day going through a photo lineup, twice reviewing the stack of papers and each time pulling out three photos: Larson Rondeau, Jerry Flatlip and Randall Flatlip.
At one point, the girl pointed to one of the photos and said, "There were four guys, and this was one of them."
Thomas did not call any additional witnesses, saying, "The interview speaks for itself."
On cross-examination, defense attorneys attempted to raise questions about whether the girl's testimony was influenced by conversations with her mother or what was found in physical examinations that the girl underwent after reporting the incident, but found themselves stymied by the judge.
Saying that appeals have changed the way things are done, Peterson said preliminary hearings are now more limited than they used to be. The judge sustained objections by prosecutors, calling the defense's questions "a fishing expedition" seeking information for discovery, holding them instead to deal primarily with evidence presented in the interviews shown in court.
Following the hearing, defense attorney Greg Lamb declined to speak specifically about the evidence he attempted to introduce, but he called the results of the medical examination "favorable for the defendants."
Prosecutors did not say why the mother's testimony was important to the case against Josiah Rondeau, but the girl did not identify him in the photo lineup. Thomas said he hopes the mother will come forward and testify later, adding, "This isn't about her, it's about her daughter."
In a closing statement, Lamb argued that there wasn't sufficient evidence to tie his client, Jerry Flatlip, to the case. In her interview, the girl did not know the name of the alleged attacker who prosecutors claim was Jerry Flatlip, he noted. And when the girl pulled pictures of the men from the photo lineup, she referred to them as the people she had seen at the house that day and did not identify them as having assaulted her.
Thomas countered that the child identified the photos that way because that's how the question was posed to her in the second interview, and asserted she knew what she was there for. From the bench, Peterson indicated that, in her first reference identifying the men in the video interview, the girl does in fact call one of the men "Jerry." She later said she wasn't sure about the man's name and instead called him "Tommy" for the rest of the conversation.
The three men stood and, one at a time, entered not guilty pleas following the judge's decision Thursday. While the three preliminary hearings were held jointly, the defendants now face the criminal charges individually.
Jerry Flatlip is scheduled to appear in court Aug. 16, and Larson Rondeau's next hearing is set for Aug. 23. Peterson denied bail reductions for the two men in light of the girl's statements during the interview that she had been threatened, and their lack of local ties.
Randall Flatlip's case was transferred to Judge Clark McClellan. His attorney, Loni DeLand, said he will address questions of bail or other matters in that court.
The charges carry a potential penalty of five years to life in prison.
The girl remains in tribal custody, Thomas said.